Harvard Medical School’s professor of genetics, George Church claims he can “cure” aging through a relatively new method of gene editing. The technique was invented four years ago, with the 61 year old professor being among those who contributed to the innovation known as CRISPR.
He and others are currently involved in a legal battle over patents for the process.
Church believes one of the ailments CRISPR can cure is aging, and he is confident he will be able to reverse the process in human being within the next six years. “A scenario is, everyone takes gene therapy — not just curing rare diseases like cystic fibrosis, but diseases that everyone has, like aging,” he says.
“One of our biggest economic disasters right now is our aging population. If we eliminate retirement, then it buys us a couple of decades to straighten out the economies of the world.If all those gray hairs could go back to work and feel healthy and young, then we’ve averted one of the greatest economic disasters in history.”
He adds: “Someone younger at heart should replace you, and that should be you. I’m willing to. I’m willing to become younger. I try to reinvent myself every few years anyway.”
Church’s co-inventor of CRISPR, Feng Zhang, says that soon there will be an entire “toolbox” of CRISPR-like techniques that can be used to edit genes.
But there are some experts who say caution is needed. One is Klaus Rajewsky of the Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine, who says “We have become masters in the art of manipulating genes, but our understanding of their function and interaction is far more limited.”
Eric Lander, head at the Broad Institute, says there are 4,000 to 5,000 genetic variants associated with human diseases but these do not necessarily cause those diseases. “They just make them slightly more prevalent. Moreover, genes can have multiple purposes — day jobs and night jobs – These are complex systems, not modules that you can pop out and replace with a better version with zero unintended consequences,” he says.
Lander adds that currently he knows of only “a handful” of human diseases that CRISPR could “plausibly address” and he even questions if such genetic manipulation is a good idea.
“If it is such a good idea, I want to scratch my head and say why didn’t evolution try to do that, and increase that in the population?” he says. “We largely exist in a state of limited knowledge. Before we make permanent changes to the human gene pool, we should exercise considerable caution.”